Prosecutors are too willing to drop race charges, says report

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The Independent Online

Racist crime is not being properly prosecuted in this country, a two-year investigation into a possible link between institutional racism and decision-making in the Crown Prosecution Service has found.

The report, by the Director of Public Prosecutions and published yesterday, is critical of the police and prosecutors because of their willingness to drop race charges. In 25 out of 33 cases where the defendants were mainly white and the victims usually black or Asian, the prosecution was either discontinued or resulted in a plea to a lesser charge.

In one disturbing example given by the inquiry team, an off-duty black policeman was attacked by a white female. The report found: "Despite clear and compelling evidence and the insistence of the police officer that this was a racially motivated crime and he wanted it prosecuted as such, the CPS declined to do so."

In another case, the race dimension to an offence was dropped because the white defendant admitted that although he could have been racist he was drunk at the time and the racist comment was made after the initial abuse. The report's author, Professor Gus John, a distinguished black academic, said the decision to discontinue this case was "surprising".

The study said: "The outcome in cases such as these may very well be to leave the perpetrators with a feeling of having been 'let off' and, as a consequence, to feel confident about perpetrating further racially motivated offences, or boasting about their actions and rubbishing their victims."

Professor John added: "The consequence for victims, on the other hand, could well be an erosion of confidence in the criminal justice system generally and in the CPS in particular."

He said there was further concern that Afro-Caribbeans and Asians were "brought to trial on a less sound basis than white defendants", although he acknowledged this had as much to do with the police as with the CPS. He found the CPS was more likely to object to bail for black defendants - and more likely to give the reason that they would "obstruct justice" - than for defendants from other ethnic groups.

Overall, Afro-Caribbean defendants were more likely than white ones to have their case discontinued. The report suggested that was because Afro-Caribbeans had been charged by police on slender evidence.

The £700,000 study examined 13,000 files from cases finalised at court between September 2000 and August 2001, and concluded it was impossible to say whether unconscious or even conscious bias was the reason for the "differentials" between the experiences of white defendants and those from ethnic minorities.

Professor John's report concluded: "It is important that the CPS take steps now to attend to the possible explanations for the differentials this research has highlighted."

He made 10 recommendations including appointing specialist prosecutors to deal with racist and religious crime, improving the way decisions are recorded in case files and building a more robust management structure. He added: "We can't conclude conclusively there is or is not bias or discrimination in prosecutors' decision making. The evidence in the files is not complete enough to allow us to do so. What we have is a series of patterns which I believe must cause the CPS some concern."

The DPP, Sir David Calvert-Smith QC, said publication of the report was one of the most important days of his five-year tenure A separate report into staffing and recruitment in the CPS by another black academic, Sylvia Denman, found evidence of institutional racism. After that report, Sir David promised to do what was necessary to combat CPS racism but said all British institutions were open to this allegation as defined by the report into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Sir David said yesterday: "I don't think there are grounds for saying the service is consciously biased against black and ethnic minorities. We need to look at the way we present objections to bail to see if there is subconscious bias there. I think we are very much set fair. But we could be, in two or three years, unless we keep our eye on the ball, in a worse situation than we are now."

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, who is the minister with responsibility for the CPS, said that it was important to remember that Professor John's findings related to cases that were closed before September 2001.

He said that since then, the CPS had made much progress with race issues."I will also continue to consult my race advisory group about tacking these issues. People can have confidence that we take the issue of combating race and gender bias seriously."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said: "We welcome this important review by the CPS. They are the first public authority to have invited third-party scrutiny of this depth and quality."